Rebel Girls, rise: We need feminist stories for our daughters; tales that empower and inspire

Dream big 
Aim higher
Fight harder
And, when in doubt, remember
You are right.

— From 'Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls' by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

I think I live by the above motto. But when I fight too hard, I’m often told that I’m “badly behaved”, “alpha”, “aggressive” and “ladke jaisi”. I don’t mind at all. It’s cool. But hey, call men the same things when they behave like me. Spare them the “good leader” and “real man” tags. That’s so yesterday. Women can’t wait till they get to Sophia College, Ashoka University or Lady Sriram, to know that they can take over the world. They need to know that when they’re just about learning to read.

A few days ago the Sunday Times website also published something similar in its piece titled 'Balancing out boy-centric bookshelves with empowering stories for girls'. The opening lines were a quote from 18th-century Chinese poet and astronomer, Wang Zhenyi: “Daughters can also be heroic." I know and agree. Not sure if our libraries and bookshops do. But that’s slowly changing.

Two Italian women, Elena Favilli (a former journalist) and Francesca Cavallo (a stage director and playwright), raised more than a million dollars on to put together Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women. It became the highest funded book in the world of crowdfunding for original books. On their website, they say their inspiration for this project came from their realization that there was nobody like them on TV or in books. “Our entrepreneurial journey made us understand how important it is for girls to grow up surrounded by female role models. It helps them to be more confident and set bigger goals. We realized that 95% of the books and TV shows we grew up with, lacked girls in prominent positions. We did some research and discovered that this didn't change much over the past 20 years, so we decided to do something about it,” says their website.

 Rebel Girls, rise: We need feminist stories for our daughters; tales that empower and inspire

Page detail from 'Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls'

Today, they’re an internet sensation.  Their video advertising for the book notched up 24 million views on Facebook in two weeks! Marketers who like their stuff to go viral, please note that feminism works. Here are the alarming facts the video reveals — 25 percent of 5,000 books their team studied had no female characters. Less than 20 percent showed women with a job, compared to more than 80 percent of male characters.

In India, not much is happening in the area of feminist literature for little girls.  The problem is that women themselves are shy of being branded “feminists”. The internet isn’t kind to women activists and the women we do hear about (Naina Lal Kidwai, Chanda Kochhar, Priyanka Chopra, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, PV Sindhu) reach us only via the news or Bollywood — largely adult mediums. They somehow don’t become protagonists of children’s books. Where are our spies, activists, scientists, business owners and bikers? Why don’t our children know about them?

A neighbour recently complimented me for driving solo from Golaghat to Shillong in one day. “Arey, itna toh ladke bhi nahi karte!” she exulted. She meant it as a compliment. Diksha Dutta, contributing editor at WunderNova who is working on her first non-fiction book with Bloomsbury India, says she got a similar response for her piece You Can Call Me 'Kaali', But The Mirror Says I'm The Fairest Of Them All . “The stigma around being branded as a vocal feminist is extremely high in our society. When I wrote about my skin colour in an article last year, many people asked me how I could write so openly about my rebellion against chauvinism.”

“Even with my work of fiction which I started late last year, in which the protagonist is a woman, I got feedback to abstain from making bold statements about feminism. After all, the identity of women writers is often assumed from their work. The larger question that needs to be addressed is if we are, in fact, afraid to be known as feminists? Or are we afraid that we will be rejected in conventional domestic family setups if we happen to be feminists? In spite of being brought up by a forward looking mother, I had to unlearn many notions about gender roles as and when I was growing up. When I look back at my formative years, I  wish I read fewer fairy tales which glorified the idea of Prince Charming and I read more about  women who were heroes,” she concludes.

Well, I guess, in that department I was probably luckier than Diksha. My father, an author and Naval officer, would tell my sister and me stories of the dacoit Gunagoon and two police officers — Nikita and Simran — who fought Gunagoon and her gang  every  night. They drove jeeps, flew planes and beat the bad guys up in Rajinikanth style. Too bad, none of us bothered writing them down. But if I were to take a look at stuff that does get written down, and name the most well-known Indian women authors, you’d probably have Shashi Deshpande, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai and Arundhati Roy. Barring Shashi Deshpande, most of the popular books by these authors don’t have women heroes. And while you can’t fault them for choosing the stories they told, the truth is that Indian writing in English barely has any role models for women.

“When you gift a kitchen set to a six-year-old girl and a racing car to a boy the same age, that’s when gender stereotyping begins. In India and in fact the world over, the only kinds of books available for young girls are mostly fairy tales. We need more revolutionary books like Rebel Girls. In fact we need story books with strong female characters for both young girls and boys. Who’d want to read about Cinderella when there’ll be female policemen, firefighters, mountain climbers, attorneys, pilots and astronauts as characters. In fact male characters shouldn't only be aggressive ones but chefs, kindergarten teachers and gardeners to instil in kids that even men can be compassionate,” says Delhi-based columnist Ridhima Malhotra.

And it’s almost as if that idea is in the air. The epidemic is spreading. A couple of brave girls at Ashoka seem to have caught the “let’s bust those gender stereotypes” bug. Alums of Ashoka University's Young India Fellowship, Alishya and Meghna have started the Irrelevant Project with the aim of reducing stereotypes​ that exist in the classroom. It’s going to be 10 stories that address stereotypes in the intersection of gender, caste, class. They believe that the stories we currently tell our children need to change. We need to view stories through a fresh perspective that would interrupt the existing stereotypes. Okay, agreed. Now let’s do something. For starters, let’s get some books authored by Indian writers on these two lists.

1. Books every feminist should read

2. Top 10 Feminist books

If none of you do, I will. I promise.

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Updated Date: May 14, 2017 10:20:43 IST